Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

What Screws Us Up Most in Life

Little girl looking into a telescope in the mountains

Maybe she’d be super-into space. (Image/Telescope Guide)

There’s at least one missing child. A beautiful little thing I would love intensely. Maybe this would be the first holidays where she was old enough to be excited about a visit from Santa. Maybe she looks like her mom.

Of course, maybe she’s not a girl at all. Maybe my third grader has a little brother instead. Three little boys, even if one of us is disguised as an almost-40-year-old.

The house is different. The plan was to move.

Thanksgiving and Christmas Day plans are different too. What was supposed to be busy and filled with family will be something else.

Maybe my imaginary daughter or son would have just been disappointed anyway.

I always had an idea in my head about what Life would look like. It never occurred to me it would be anything but that. But then Real Life happened.

We’d always talked about two kids. But after abandoning my wife in the hospital five hours after she delivered our son via emergency C-section, and then leaving the creation and management of baby logistics to her throughout most of our first year as parents, I think I sapped her desire to go through anything like that again.

I once asked her if I was the reason she chose not to have more children.

She said yes.

‘What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.’

I read that yesterday in MBTTTR commenter Drew’s excellent blog post about marital affairs.

This is a Life Thing I had picked up on when I was still young. I always said: “Expectations are everything.”

And what I mean by that is, my enjoyment or disappointment in something—or rather, my initial perception of something’s quality—was based entirely on my expectations prior to the experience.

Things like movies and books taught me this.

I can go to the theater to see two movies of approximately equal quality, say Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Avatar; or I can listen to two new albums for the first time—say AWOLNATION’s Run and Brian Fallon’s Painkillers—and my feelings about all of them are predicated entirely on what I thought heading in.

I thought Avatar was going to be the greatest achievement in cinematic history. It didn’t achieve that for me. The Force Awakens met my expectations entirely. Both movies, in my estimation, are of equal quality, but I like Force Awakens quite a bit more, and I think that’s why.

Same with AWOL and Brian Fallon. I expected to like the AWOL album. And I did.

I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever for Brian Fallon (front man for The Gaslight Anthem). And that album kicks ass. I don’t know whether I think it’s better than AWOL’s or not. But BECAUSE it was an out-of-nowhere pleasant surprise for me, I have a major fondness for it.

Maybe everyone does this.

Maybe I’m a little extreme. Or maybe some people are much better at accurately predicting their emotional responses to things, and maybe those people have much happier and healthier relationships and lives as a result.

I only know that pretty much all of my life experiences are impacted greatly by whether Real Life meets, exceeds, or falls short of, my prior expectations.

This has implications for my human relationships I’ve yet to wrap my head around.

This Isn’t Where I Thought I’d Be

Divorce changed everything.

That’s a MAJOR reset-button push when you don’t see it coming, or are in denial about its inevitability once a certain amount of breakage and ugliness has poisoned the marriage.

Everything in the very beginning is a blur.

When everything is broken on the inside of you, the world looks skewed and it’s impossible to tell whether what you’re seeing is wrong because it’s actually wrong, or because your brain’s Reality Calibration is busted.

I had just turned 34 when Everything became Something Else.

After a lifetime of companionship and/or reliable care from loving and responsible adults, I woke up to silence and a reflection in the mirror I hardly recognized.

Everything felt unsteady and out of balance, and even now, I can’t be sure how much of that to attribute to the psychological and emotional trauma of ending a nine-year marriage and losing half of my son’s childhood, and how much was simply the radical change in environment.

Where there used to be a person making noise in the house—Being a mom. Eating dinner with me. Talking on the phone. Watching TV. Walking around.

Where there used to be life and conversation and full calendars and partnership and the pitter-pattering of little feet and the stability and reliability and comfort that comes from waking up to This Is Normal And Right… there was nothing.

A void.

I was obsessed with dating at first. Not actually doing it, per se because I wasn’t very good at it and it all felt so, just, off. Wrong.

But at age 34 the ticking clock was louder than I’d realized. And I felt like filling the new void in my life quickly should be a priority.

After all, I was clearly the kind of guy who got married and lived that kind of life. Which meant, I faced the monumental task of finding someone who fit what is probably an impossible list of criteria, that I then loved along with any children she might have, and was loved by her (as would my son be), and felt secure enough in all of that to get married again.

When you’ve never been single and divorced before, it’s easy to imagine that happening in a three- to five-year window (which I did).

But then Real Life happened.

The clock ticks.

The calendar pages flip.

The seasons change.

You mark another line higher on the wall where you measure your child’s height.

You tell him to put on a pair of pants only to discover they no longer fit.

One Christmas turns into two, and then three with a fourth fast-approaching.

And then you wake up, and it’s today.

Divorced and Single Four Holiday Seasons Later

There was a part of me during the early days of this blog that believed I’d eventually have a relationship to tell you about.

Not all the nitty-gritty. I keep too much private for that.

But at least a birds-eye view of giving Round 2 a genuine shot while armed with what I believe I’ve learned about life and love and relationships. I thought maybe that would help people. I thought maybe that would help me.

But that’s not where things are.

That’s not Real Life.

In actuality, I’m just a guy who read a crap-ton of New Zealand travel guides so I can tell you all about the country, but I’ve never actually forked over the money nor invested the time to experience it myself.

(That was a metaphor. I haven’t actually read a bunch of New Zealand travel guides.)

But I’m not even sure that’s right.

That suggests fear. And I’m not afraid.

I guess I feel more like the tired old man coaching basketball (even though I certainly don’t think of myself as a “coach,” or that I’m qualified to instruct others in any way). I know what good basketball is supposed to look like, but am not inclined to get back out on the floor to play in any games.

Maybe I feel too tired. Or too old. Or too busy.

I don’t know.

I also don’t know whether to feel good, bad or indifferent about it.

As in all things, there’s some good and some bad.

But I’m learning to have fewer expectations. Less disappointment, you know? Maybe less joy, too.

I wouldn’t know.

I’m trying to remember what my daughter’s name would have been. The one I never had.

Julianne? Julie Anne? A J-name that stopped mattering the second I held my son.

Or did it?

I think about that little girl a lot. The one who never was.

And the family that isn’t. The one I used to know. And the one I’d imagined with them. And the one I was forced to imagine for a reimagined world.

But I wish I would stop. Because in The Way Things Are vs. The Way They Should Be, I’m not sure we’re always smart enough to know the difference.

And with these little ones involved, real or imagined, how much can we afford to get disillusioned by reality falling short of what we’d expected or hoped for?

Thank God she didn’t die after birth or from miscarriage.

Or that she didn’t fall ill.

Or that she never ran away or went missing.

Or that the courts never said I couldn’t see her.

Or that her family never lost her precious life.

Or that my son never lost his little sister.

And that we never had to sob over that too.

Maybe I don’t make it to today, had that not been the case.

But there’s still a bit of tragedy in Never Was.

And I can’t help but wonder sometimes about an alternative life where I chose other options and turned to different Choose Your Own Adventure pages with entirely different outcomes.

Because that would have been cute, right? Watching the Thanksgiving Day parade? Showing her massive balloons? Reminding my eldest to be kind to his sister? Putting up the Christmas tree and watching her face as we plugged in the lights for the first time?

I’d have liked that, even if the real-life version would have gone an entirely different way.

I’d have especially liked the part where I told her about that first night in the hospital where I stayed awake all night holding her so mommy could sleep.

Many years later, we’d teach older children how things that seem innocuous in a moment can redefine everything in the future.

We’d talk about having expectations. About the bad. And the good.

About regrets. And triumphs.

About fear. And hope.

We’d all show up, and just be.

Because that’s everything, really. Showing up. Being present. And being invested.

The reason my life is as it is today is virtually 100% because I failed to show up because I was too ignorant to know I was supposed to, too irresponsible to actually do it, or too selfish to actually want to.

It’s not always Life and Death, but maybe just Life and Never Was.

But sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference.

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No Bullshit: Gratitude Changes Everything

gratitude_being_grateful

If you’re anything like me (and pretty much every other person, ever) you have countless memories of looking forward to getting or achieving something, and how awesome it feels for the following five seconds before you totally take it for granted and start wanting something else.

THIS IS WHY YOUR RELATIONSHIPS FAIL.

This is why you feel a little depressed and unfulfilled.

This is why even though we have nice cars and smartphones and HDTVs and houses and good jobs and attractive partners and beautiful children and awesome friends and supportive families, we STILL want more shit.

Like most things, this sucky part of the human condition is not without its perks. Without a predisposition toward achievement, humanity would have died off eons ago from disease and lion attacks because cavemen would have discovered how to make fire and just stopped trying new things forever.

The cost of ambition is the destruction of internal peace and contentment. Of our individual pursuits of happiness.

It has a name, and I didn’t know it until today: Hedonic adaptation.

It is the psychological phenomenon of boredom and dissatisfaction taking hold over time as we adjust to positive life changes.

It’s why the person who gives you intense crushy tummy butterflies and lusty pulses of orgasmic euphoria can turn into your feel-nothing roommate just a few years, or even months, later.

It’s why your brand-new car from a couple years ago from which you once handpicked the occasional pet hair from the carpet, is now sufficiently unclean and fails to deliver those fun I’m-proud-to-drive-this! feelings when you climb in.

It’s why no material thing or salary increase or lifestyle change IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE has ever capably delivered long-term happiness to the person unaware of the dangers of hedonic adaptation (which I’m pretty sure is more than 95 percent of everybody.)

OMG! What Can I Do About It???

There is, literally, only ONE cure for this life-destroying ailment. And that is to actively, deliberately, vigilantly practice gratitude.

Your choice, every day of your life, is: Really and truly feel thankful for all of the great things in your life OR suffer a slow descent into miserable shittiness.

That’s not an exaggeration. Remember when P. Diddy was wearing those silly Vote or Die! shirts, and we were all like: “WTF, Puff Daddy!? Are you and The Family going to murder non-voters!? That seems like an overreaction! Ohhhhhhh. You just mean, voting is really important and we should all do it, and you chose that slogan to spread the message? Got it now! Sorry, but that’s stupid. You don’t die when you don’t vote, because we would totally hear about that in the news.”

Anyway. This gratitude stuff is nothing like that. I’m more right about this than Puffy was about the voting/death correlation. Please don’t listen to him, unless it’s his track “Victory” with Notorious B.I.G. because that shit was mad rare.

Find a way to say “Thank you” and really feel, deep in your heart and soul, genuine gratitude that your life doesn’t suck and is actually quite blessed.

“But, Matt! My life DOES suck right now!”

I’m totally putting my hands up right now in the universal sign language for “Fair enough.” I get it. I’m a whiny turd every time something doesn’t go my way, too. It’s because I haven’t mastered this gratitude thing yet and forget how good I really have it.

I forget EVERY DAY.

Right now, a woman in some faraway place is holding her dying child because of the trickle-down effect of not having sanitary drinking water in her village.

Someone else doesn’t know how to read. Someone else can’t find employment. Someone else will get shot or sexually assaulted walking in his or her neighborhood today. Someone else has a child with a terminal illness.

Others can’t pay the electric bill.

Others have no car.

Others have no home.

Others have zero people who love them.

I whined a little yesterday because I got stuck in traffic for, like, 30 minutes, and everything worked out fine.

My 7-year-old asked whether I wanted him to starve to death because his stomach was rumbling before dinner.

Tomorrow, even though I’m a thoughtful eater portion-wise, I am still likely to throw away more food than millions of people scattered throughout the world have available to them.

If You Don’t Start Now, You’ll Forget and Stay on the Hedonic Treadmill (and that’s bad)

I know it sounds like a bunch of hippy dippy bologna.

I know.

But this is real. And if you (and I do this constantly, so I have to believe everyone else does too) ever say or think: “When X, Y and Z happens, EVERYTHING is going to be different and I’ll finally be happy!!!” it means you’re an unwitting prisoner on the Hedonic Treadmill. Just running and running and running and never getting anywhere. Just like me.

It’s time to get off.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States tomorrow. The day where most people remember to say “Thank you!”

Please remember to say Thank you.

Just maybe, all that gratitude will be contagious.

And just maybe, if we catch it, it will save our lives.

(Note: A massive Thank You to Amit Amin at Happier Human for all the great content that contributed to this post.)

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How to Change Your Life and Always Feel Good

a-charlie-brown-thanksgiving

Warning: If you’re someone who A. Reads this blog regularly, or B. Prefers feeling miserable, you can skip this one because you’ve seen most of it before, or potentially run the risk of feeling better about your life.

Please just stop.

Just for a minute.

Stop.

And use every bit of brainpower and awareness and common sense you possess to ask yourself: Why am I doing this?

Doing what? Doesn’t matter. Anything. Whatever you’re doing.

It probably applies most to your job if you have one, or your decision to attend school if you’re a student.

It probably applies to your home life. To your relationships. To your decision about where you live and whether you rent or buy, and what you do when you have free time.

But it really applies to every waking moment.

Why are we doing this?

“What is it that you really want?” people like to ask. It’s a really great question. And we’re sometimes quick to fire off some answers that we probably think are true.

Money!

True love!

World peace!

Or maybe something more specific.

A million dollars!

A spouse who makes me feel safe!

An end to all the fighting in the Middle East!

I think I want all kinds of things. A more-lucrative career. Writing success. Maybe a really nice house and cars. Maybe the means to go on adventurous vacations and see the world. And little things. Like a massive television or a kitchen and bathroom upgrade or my favorite team to win the championship.

Sometimes I feel bad when I don’t get what I want.

Sometimes We Need a Wake-Up Call

The ability to empathize can sometimes provide us with the dose of reality and perspective we need without actually having to suffer through a crisis or tragedy. That’s always nice.

Other times, maybe we need the bad things to happen to us.

I lost my family.

The two most-important people in my world. One gone half the time. A little boy I sometimes feel as if I’m constantly failing. The other, gone forever.

And I felt so horrible that all of the things I thought I wanted I quickly realized—for the first time—just how irrelevant those things like money and new televisions really were.

When you’re broken on the inside, there is no checking account balance large enough to mend you.

Early this year, I had a tonsil infection with symptoms that mirror Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There were a few days where I thought I might have an illness serious enough to kill me and I was scared.

I’m pretty sure having a really luxurious kitchen or a 100-inch television wouldn’t have quelled my fears.

Last May, I was whining about my life right here when I learned about a lovely child named Abby Grace Ferguson. A little girl who the doctors say has a terminal illness they’ve never seen overcome.

Abby has a mom and dad.

A mom and dad like my son’s mom and dad. My son is 6. He’s in first grade and my soul bleeds any time I let the briefest thought pass through my brain about something bad happening to him.

Abby’s parents believed her to be perfectly healthy until she was 8, when she was diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome—a rare disease that causes progressive brain damage. Without a miracle, or radical medical advancement (which they’re working on!), Abby will lose her ability to walk, talk and feed herself. She will more than likely lose her hearing and have seizures. Most children diagnosed with Sanfilippo Syndrome do not live past their teenage years.

It’s unimaginable. What her parents must feel.

But I can assure you, me having Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma would seem like a pleasure cruise by comparison.

Everything is relative. Some people prefer to deal in absolutes. I try to stay as open and flexible as possible. Because the older I get, the less sure I am about how much I really know.

But I do know one thing.

I Know What You Want

I’m not saying you don’t want money. Because it’s easy to want.

I’m not saying you don’t want love. Life is emptier without it.

I’m not saying you don’t want world peace. Things would be less messy, scary and complicated.

When you strip away EVERYTHING? All the noise and bullshit?

All you really want is to feel happy. Is to feel content. Is to feel inner peace.

That’s it. That’s what you want.

You think money will make you feel content. You think the freedom and purchasing power it provides will make you feel happy. And you believe you’ll have more peace if you eliminate debt and don’t have a horrible boss and have sex regularly with someone you trust who says I love you and makes you feel confident and safe.

You want the stuff because you want that feeling. That feeling we call “happy.”

We don’t need stuff or status to feel good about our lives.

You could lie still on a couch watching reruns and feel amazing about your life if you only felt happy enough. And there are people like that. They’re called stoners and tweekers. Drugs are not a good choice. But they DO illustrate my point fabulously.

You don’t need more money.

You don’t need a nicer car or bigger house.

You don’t need things.

And if you believe otherwise, you might be doomed. I think most people are. To a life of dissatisfaction and sadness. And that’s no way to live.

I might argue you only need ONE thing to be truly happy: Gratitude.

“What!?”

Genuine, heartfelt gratitude is the prerequisite to true happiness, and you can change your life overnight simply by realizing it and working daily to stay mindful of it.

You have a house and aren’t sleeping outside in a box with no money or food? Thank you!

You have friends or family or children or pets to love and love you back? Thank you!

You can hear music and people speak because you’re not deaf? You can see sunsets and attractive people and your child’s smile because you’re not blind? You can walk or kiss or have medical insurance? You have lungs and breathe because you’re not currently drowning or being choked by someone mean and horrible?

Thank you!

Some people are going to roll their eyes. “You know who says ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness?’ People who don’t have any!”

Not everyone can be helped. Pity them and move on.

We have enough.

You ARE enough.

Choose happiness because it’s so much better than feeling terrible.

Choose gratitude because you can never be happy without it.

Choose love because you get what you give.

Tomorrow isn’t here and yesterday hardly matters.

All we have is right now.

I am eternally grateful for you.

Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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How to Feel Grateful, Vol. 2

daily-gratitudeI’m on a never-ending pursuit of happiness.

You are, too. You might not realize that’s what you’re doing. But you are.

Our human instinct is to grab, and take, and capitalize, and steal, and stuff our pockets, and hoard.

Me, me, me.

How can I have more?

How can I benefit?

How can I feel the best?

Sometimes, I don’t have answers. Only questions.

But sometimes, I have answers.

Sometimes, I actually know what the hell I’m talking about.

How to Feel Happy

I titled this post “How to Feel Grateful, Vol. 2” (You can read Vol. 1 here—though it’s among my least-favorite posts), because gratitude is a prerequisite to happiness.

You will not feel the thing we label “happiness,” if you are not first grateful for all that you have.

And you have A LOT.

“Life is short, life is very short. I like life. I like it. I feel like even if it ends up being short, I got lucky to get—to have it, because life is an amazing gift when you think about what you get with a basic life. Not even a particularly lucky life, or a healthy life. If you have a life, it’s a—here is your boilerplate deal with life. This is basic cable, what you get, when you get life. You get to be on earth. First of all, oh my God, what a location.

“This is earth, and for trillions of miles in every direction it fucking sucks. So bad! It’s so shitty that your eyes bolt out of your head, because it sucks so bad. You get to be on earth and look at shit as long as you’re not blind or whatever it is, that you get to be here, you get to eat food. You get to put bacon in your mouth! I mean, when you have bacon in your mouth, it doesn’t matter who is president or anything, you just ahh, ahhhh. Every time I’m eating bacon I think, ‘I could die right now,’ and I mean it. That’s how good life is.” – Louis CK

Here’s how to feel happy:

1. Love yourself.

2. Give more than you take.

a. Give more than you take in your human relationships. Do the little things. Say nice things. Don’t say mean things. Apologize. Say “Thank you.” Say “I love you.” When you feel like you’re getting more than you’re giving, you should work extra hard to give more. Like a contest.

b. Give more than you take in your career. Treat the people you deal with—coworkers and customers—with respect. Give, give, give. Do more. Try harder. Be the best. Then, they give you more money. If they don’t give you more money, another employer will because they want the best person on their team. When you really figure it out, you eventually just make your own job.

c. Give more than you take spiritually. I don’t know what you believe. For the purposes of this, I’m not sure it matters. Just don’t pray and plead and beg when the shit hits the fan. Don’t cry out for help without being appreciative of life’s blessings also. Pray when it’s good. Or just say “Thank you” to the universe. Mean it. Feel it. Bottle that good. Then give some of it to someone else so that they can do the same.

3. Get plenty of sleep.

4. Exercise.

5. Be kind to others.

6. Don’t procrastinate.

“But Matt! You’re totally miserable! Why should I listen to you?”

Don’t, if you don’t want to. Feel shitty, like me. Knock yourself out.

I know I’m right because it’s hard. I know I’m right because it sounds like work. I know it’s hard because these are all of the things I’m NOT doing.

My favorite writer has already written it all a hundred times a hundred different ways and he says it all much better than I do.

You should read it. And you should pretend it’s the most-important thing you’ve ever read.

Then you should change your life.

Thank You

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States.

A day to count our blessings. A day to say “thanks.”

I am grateful for the air I breathe.

I am grateful for my beautiful son.

I am grateful for a warm home on a cold day.

I am grateful for a reliable vehicle to get me to my destinations.

I am grateful for food.

I am grateful for music.

I am grateful for family.

I am grateful for friends.

I am grateful for you.

I am grateful for another opportunity to keep trying. Each day, a chance to make my life what I want it to be. A chance to wake up and do what is necessary to achieve peace. To seize happiness and make it mine.

It won’t be by frantically grabbing scraps as if there isn’t enough to go around.

It will be by sharing the treasure trove with others. By sharing a bottomless well of joy with everyone willing to make the journey there, and by encouraging the unwilling to try.

I am alive.

I am blessed.

I am loved.

I love.

You keep looking for miracles, but you don’t always see them.

Go find the nearest mirror and take a good, hard, long look.

Because you’re the miracle.

And I’ve never felt more gratitude for you than I do right now.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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The In-Laws

The holidays are coming. As does the all-too-literal winter of my discontent.

The holidays are looming. As is the all-too-literal winter of my discontent.

The losses in divorce are great.

There’s a huge pile of them. And a lot of collateral damage.

With the holidays approaching, the one I’ve thought about most is the loss of my ex-wife’s family.

You see, I live here—in northeast Ohio—in large part because of her.

I willingly came here and was happy to be here.

But taking my wife out of the equation? I don’t really want to live here anymore.

Today, I live here because of my son. Because I would never, under any circumstances, choose to relocate somewhere where I saw him less, or made him feel like his father was abandoning him.

There’s just no way. There is no person. No amount of money. No anything that could pull off that magic trick.

I’m here.

My choice.

Own your shit.

My ex-wife’s family is amazing.

Her mother is precious and kind. Always so steady. Even in the worst of times. A steady presence for her children and grandchildren. A steady presence for her now-estranged son-in-law.

My ex-wife’s only sibling is the best brother-in-law imaginable. Kind. Generous. Hard-working. An incredible uncle. He’s the perfect blend of his steady mother and his kind, generous, hard-working father who he lost two years ago. He and his wife have a beautiful little girl who’s life is rapidly passing me by, and will continue to.

Her immediate family took me in right away despite recognizing I wasn’t like them. I can’t pinpoint exactly all the differences. I’m maybe less country. A little softer. A little more selfish and self-centered.

They all have siblings. While I do have two stepsisters—good ones—and a half-sister 14 years younger than me, my upbringing was predominantly that of an only child. And I have those traits. The good and bad ones.

But they took me in just the same.

I think the one thing they always recognized despite my many flaws is that I always had my ex-wife’s best interests at heart.

From Big Families to Small Ones

My mom is the oldest of eight children.

Family gatherings—even the impromptu ones on random Saturdays and Sundays growing up—were pretty big events. The holidays, weddings and other family reunion-ish events were almost epic in scope.

I have a million and a half cousins. The youngest ones are still in high school.

So, even though I grew up an only child, I was always immersed in a big-family environment.

It was wonderful. I am so fortunate I was able to grow up as I did, where I did, and with the people I did, family and otherwise.

It was a rude awakening when my ex-wife and I moved to Florida—1,200 miles away from everything and everybody we knew and loved—upon graduating college.

Down there, everything was different.

No big family.

No huge social network.

No nothing.

Just my ex-wife’s aunt, uncle and adult cousin who lived more than an hour’s drive away. And the few friends we were lucky to make in a community dominated by retirement-aged people.

One Thanksgiving, it was just a half dozen of us eating turkey and ham in our apartment. A bunch of kids far away from their families and unable to afford the airfare home, or unable to get away because most of us were on-call newspaper reporters.

One Christmas I made lasagna for a few of us. We drank a little beer. We watched a basketball game no one cared about. We played a little basketball ourselves because it was 80 degrees outside.

Everything was strange.

We made the best of it.

But it was strange.

Home beckoned. And Ohio—all the good, bad and in-between—is home.

New Family Traditions

And so they began, almost immediately, as my wife and I relocated from Florida to Ohio in the fall of 2005, just before Halloween.

It took me a little while to get to know her large family. While I’m an Ohio native, this new, faraway region of the state was foreign to me. New faces, new places.

But here we were.

You could see on her face how happy she was. Celebrating Christmas with her parents. With her brother, who had also returned to Ohio after several years living in southern California.

Living a three-hour drive from my family and hometown was like living next door after those years in Florida.

It was wonderful.

Very kind, decent people on both sides of her family.

Her mother’s family. And her father’s family.

I was, and remain, particularly fond of her father’s side of the family.

There are aunts. Aunts who hugged me like their own every time I saw them.

There are uncles. Uncles who helped repair our cars and complete home-improvement projects.

There are cousins. Reflections of their parents, and in a lot of ways, reflections of my own family and my own memories, as I observed everyone come together during life’s best and worst moments.

They are beautiful.

And I love them.

And every time I flip the calendar, I get a little sicker as it represents more time disconnected from them, and the realization that the holidays are five minutes from now, and they can never, and will never, be the same without them.

My new family.

My new family that isn’t.

Living in the Now

I don’t have a choice.

None of us do.

We live in the present. We play the cards we’re dealt.

We can piss and moan and whine, and God knows I do that all the time. But the cards don’t change.

We play with them. Maybe win a hand. Maybe lose a hand. Maybe fold them altogether.

But there’s always a new hand coming. Always an opportunity for that next win.

And that’s what keeps me going now.

It’s been a decade now since a bunch of random young adults gathered in our apartment to celebrate the holidays the best we could even though everything was weird and wrong.

And that’s what I must do now. Be resourceful. Be grateful. Identify the good and celebrate it. Because there is always good to focus on.

But that doesn’t mean I can just forget everything that’s now missing.

When you lose a spouse, sometimes you lose more than a spouse.

Sometimes you lose a family. A big one. A wonderful one.

I haven’t spoken to any of them since the separation. I don’t know whether it was supposed to be my job to reach out. I never really know what to do in these awkward human situations. So I tend to err on the side of withdrawing.

I’m sure some of them think I just moved on and don’t care. I wish there was some simple way to let them know that’s not the case. To let them know how much they matter. To let them know how grateful I am for all they’ve done for me.

They turned a strange land into home. They turned strangers into family.

Like miracle workers.

And someday, I think, they’ll probably have to do that again. There will be some new guy. Some stranger they’ll need to turn into family.

My son’s stepfather, whoever that may be.

Once in a while, I pray for that guy. Whoever and wherever he is. That he be blessed with the strength and wisdom and kindness and ability to love required to care for my son’s mother, as she will deserve once she learns to love and forgive again.

That he be able to love my son as my stepfather loved me.

That he be everything I’m not.

That he be a much better man than I ever have been or will be.

I want that so much for my son.

I want that for my ex-wife.

I want that for that beautiful extended family who has treated me like gold all these years.

And I pray they will treat him the same and that he’ll deserve it.

But deep down?

I hope they always miss me and like me better.

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